WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on Wednesday joined his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill in announcing the formation of a new conservation caucus.
The kickoff of the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus comes after President Trump gave a speech this week touting his administration’s environmental record and as Republican lawmakers appear increasingly eager to herald their green credentials.
But environmentalists are accusing Burr and others in the group of attempting to “greenwash” their records.
President Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican conservationist for whom the caucus is named is “absolutely rolling over in his grave,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Burr has a lifetime score of 8% from the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group that tracks lawmakers’ pro-environment votes. In 2016, he was included in that group’s list of “Dirty Dozen” politicians for his votes that consistently line up with fossil fuel industry interests.
“He’s not exactly a friend to clean air and clean water,” said Dustin Ingalls, director of strategic communications at the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters. “When it comes to most issues, he’s with polluters and not with the people.”
Burr joined other Republicans from the Senate and House on Wednesday to formally announce the launch of the group, which its leaders said will “embrace and promote constructive efforts to resolve conservation and environmental problems that align with market-based approaches and promote American ingenuity.”
Burr insisted Wednesday that conservation is a major priority for him.
“I spend most of my day trying to figure out how to stay away from this room and away from you guys and the cameras,” the famously press-shy senator told reporters at a press conference. “But I think that gives you some indication as to how important I think this is.”
And Burr noted that North Carolina is home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited National Park in the country. “Sometimes we forget, it’s not just the beauty of the west, it’s the beauty of the east. It stretches from Alaska to North Carolina, it goes from Florida all the way to Michigan.”
Burr also emphasized his work on securing the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a move that was seen as a huge victory by conservationists and public lands advocates. Ingalls of the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters welcomed Burr’s work on that effort.
The Republicans in the caucus stressed that they intend to approach the environment differently than their Democratic colleagues, some of whom are pushing for the Green New Deal that’s drawn the wrath of conservatives.
“From a Republican point of view, I think we need to showcase that we care about conservation, we care about the environment and we have innovative solutions that are not top-down regulatory solutions,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“We believe that you cannot have a healthy environment and destroy the economy. And we believe that our friends on the other side care about the environment, but they care so much they’re going to destroy the economy in the name of saving the environment. That is a false choice.”
Ingalls questioned why North Carolina’s other senator, Republican Thom Tillis, wasn’t involved in the launch of the caucus. Tillis has a lifetime LCV score of 7%. Tillis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
Like Burr, other GOP lawmakers who did join the caucus also have low LCV scores. Graham’s lifetime rating is 12%; Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has a lifetime score of 10%; Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) has a score of 4%. Others in the group received higher marks from LCV — Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has a lifetime score of 17% and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has a 26% score.
Snape, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said of the caucus and of Trump, “Do they really think … that they can just say they’re green and people will believe them? … I think it’s a desperate political green masquerade.”
He suggested that Trump and the GOP lawmakers are making their environmental push in light of new polling data indicating that the environment presents a liability for the party heading into 2020.
“They’ve read the poll numbers” and have decided to engage in a “marketing ploy,” Snape said. But “votes matter,” he added.
John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there’s “at least reason for concern that the caucus is purposefully avoiding controversial issues in the name of focusing on less controversial issues in a way that would let them say there’s a conservative environmental agenda.”
He said the caucus should ultimately be judged by how much and how fast it will act to cut dangerous air pollution. “We’ll have to see what the answer is to that question.”
Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for the States Newsroom network, of which Policy Watch is a member.